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Your lake - your problem

Sinkholes drained Lakeland's Scott Lake. Many who don't live on it think that's pretty funny.

By MELANIE AVE
Published June 24, 2006


LAKELAND - As Scott Lake drained like a bathtub thanks to sinkholes beneath its murky surface, Gene Pryor just laughed.

Really.

The residents who live in the fancy homes rimming the lake-turned-stinky-muddy-marsh asked, what about the water, the views, the wildlife, the home values?

But other Polk County residents, including Pryor, who have been denied access to the state-owned lake for about 25 years seemed to mock: too bad, so sad.

The unexpected emptying of this 291-acre lake just south of downtown Lakeland has started quite a community class war.

"I find it quite humorous that those people on the lake can't use it," said Pryor, a 73-year-old retired electrical engineer and Lakeland resident. "I hope it doesn't recover."

After a heavy downpour last week, water levels once 15 feet deep began dropping. The wall of one waterfront stucco house cracked, and several docks buckled. Fish, turtles, alligators and otters fought to stay alive.

On Friday, most of the water had disappeared into the aquifer except for random puddles. Buzzards circled overhead, and birds picked at the smelly remains of fish and snails littering the mud.

Scott Lake is surrounded by several gated neighborhoods on winding streets, shrouded by large trees. Many of the homes sell for $500,000 to $1-million.

Some of the county's most elite residents, including the daughter of the late founder of Publix grocery stores, live here.

At one time the county operated a boat ramp on the lake's western edge, but some residents say it closed in 1979 when the county let a lease lapse. It meant the lake became a de facto exclusive water playground for Scott Lake residents, since it is surrounded by private property.

When Mother Nature began swallowing the lake's 500-million to 1-billion gallons of water - and 85,000 pounds of fish - it reopened the wounds between the haves and have-nots over public access to the lake.

"It would be nice if the lake could be public," said Lee Newport, 48, as he stood on a sidewalk near the lake. He was one of hundreds of people who came to gawk at and take pictures of the empty lake.

"It's Lakeland's newest attraction," he said. "I guess in a way it's just deserts."

So far, no government agency - including the county, the state Department of Environmental Protection or the Southwest Florida Water Management District, or Swiftmud - has said it will plug the sinkholes.

They say homeowners must pay to restore the lake.

"We consider it nature doing what it does," said Swiftmud spokesman Michael Molligan. "A lot of lakes in Florida began as sinkholes. It's just part of the geology of Florida."

But that hasn't stopped the talk.

The mere mention of taxpayer dollars being spent on Scott Lake has angered many residents.

Several people, including Pryor, have written cutting letters to the local newspaper, the Lakeland Ledger. Others have fired off vitriolic rants on Internet message boards, saying the Scott Lake residents are selfish and snobbish and undeserving of help.

"Rich Scott Lake residents have fenced right up to the sidewalk, so you can't even dip your hand in the lake," wrote resident Debra K. Meyer in a letter than ran Friday. "So, to them I say, dip your hand in your purse or wallet, and fix your lake."

Pryor said he used to take his boat on Scott Lake and fish.

"I hope for God's sake the state or the city or the county doesn't pay to do anything in there," he said.

Many Scott Lake residents said they played no role in keeping the public from boating and fishing on the lake. They said they wish the attention would switch from them to the real problem, the lake.

"I didn't expect something like this to happen," said Cheryl Kovacich, who moved to the community in 1991 from Wisconsin. "But no one knows what's going to happen in life, no matter where you live."

The sinkholes are just steps from Kovacich's back yard. Her boat and water scooter hang in dry-dock.

Kovacich thinks the lake will someday refill with water, and she has no plans to move away. "The people who live here are really nice," she said, walking along the muddy beach of the lake, her feet crunching the snails. "They're not snobs."

Scott Lake homeowners such as Dave Curry, 66, have hired BCI Engineering & Scientists to study the sinkholes and determine whether they can be plugged with sand or concrete.

If so, the homeowners must get a permit from the Department of Environmental Protection. And to pump water into the lake from the aquifer below -- which they did in 1974 when lake levels dipped - they would have to secure another permit from Swiftmud.

Just plugging the sinkholes could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"Water levels will fill back up," said Rick Powers, BCI president. How long would that take?

"That's the big unknown."

Curry said Scott Lake homeowners are willing to bear the cost in order to bring back their beautiful lake.

He disregards the angry comments about Scott Lake residents, saying it was the county's decision to cease operating the boat ramp.

At Bruster's ice cream shop near the lake, Jean Chambless, 74, said she feels no ill will toward those in Scott Lake neighborhoods.

Instead of waterfront views, now they have to look at a bowl-shaped mud pit for who knows how long.

"I'm sure the value of those homes went just that fast," said Chambless, a homemaker. "I feel sorry for them."

--Melanie Ave can be reached at 727893-8813 or mave@sptimes.com.

Sinkhole warning signs

--Fresh exposures on fence posts, foundations and trees that result when the ground sinks

--Slumping, sagging or slanting fence posts, trees or other objects

--Doors and windows that fail to close properly

--Small ponds of rainfall forming where water has not collected before

--Wilting vegetation. This happens because the moisture that normally supports vegetation is draining into the sinkhole that is developing below the surface.

--Muddy water in nearby wells

--Cracks in walls, floors, pavement and in the ground

Sources: Swiftmud and Knight-Ridder Tribune